A student of mine recently told me that, as he begins to work on developing analytical wine tasting abilities, he finds he likes everything at first. It’s hard for him to get past the innate pleasure of wine. Only when he goes back to the wine a day or so does he notice its shortcomings. “How,” he asked me, “do critics avoid that and evaluate wines objectively?” This seems a simple question, but there are many parts to the answer.
Consumers generally drink wine passively. Their goal is enjoyment. Most people don’t want to diminish that pleasure by thinking about the wine too much or looking for things to fault. They do the opposite, subconsciously focusing on only the best attributes of the wine. If people are critical of a wine, it’s typically due to strong tannins or high acidity which make the wine less “smooth.”
Critics taste wine actively. For wine reviews, they analyze each wine from appearance through aroma, palate and finish. They break each phase into multiple components. Analytical tasters don’t just look at the color, for example. They ask questions about it. What does the color say about this wine? Is the color appropriate to the variety, region and age? Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon should be deeply colored and dark, even purple. Pinot Noir from Burgundy should be much lighter in color and red, not purple.
Many people enjoy watching medical shows on TV. But few have detailed knowledge about performing surgery or what correct hospital procedures are under various circumstances. Real surgeons do, and few of them like watching medical dramas. Experts immediately see inaccuracies, shortcuts and oversimplifications. Those problems are so glaring and upsetting, the doctors can’t see anything else. They can’t get into the plot or enjoy the characters.
I’m not comparing wine critics to surgeons, except that they each have specialized knowledge and training the general population does not. To an untrained taster, volatile acidity (VA), reduction, or inappropriate residual sugar are seen as part of the wine which is evaluated as a whole—like or don’t like. They aren’t recognized as individual artifacts of the winemaking process which have decreased the quality of an otherwise solid wine. If the flaws aren’t severe, they don’t distract consumers at all. Consumers may actually enjoy the sweetness, or the amplifying effect VA has on fruity aromas.
Wine professionals are trained to both detect and recognize flaws. They know what causes them and have developed the acuity to notice even trace amounts. To a wine critic, even small flaws seem to be jumping up and down for attention. (This is even more true of winemakers by the way.) As Antonio Galloni of Vinous once told me, “I look for things to like. The flaws will be obvious.”
The more a person tastes with a trained palate and critical eye, the easier it becomes to recognize these flaws. A taster’s ability to focus improves and their palate becomes more acute. They can spot nuances the way a pro golfer reads the subtleties of a green. And like a golfer, the critic can not only see where a wine is, but know where it’s likely to go.
Many wine reviewers taste more wines in one week than a typical consumer will in six months. And that’s without engaging in the epic tasting marathons of which many people are critical. Tasting twelve, or twenty, wines in a day is no big deal for critics and it has no fatiguing effect on their palates whatsoever.
Years of Experience
Every wine reviewer has tasted a lot of bad wine. They’ve tasted a lot of wine that’s okay and a lot that’s good. And they’ve tasted many that are phenomenal.
The first few times someone sees a fireworks display, they are enraptured. After seeing a lot of them though, only the most spectacular displays, or those that introduce a new effect, will engage that person. Tasting a lot of wine diminishes our enthusiasm for wines that are just okay or good. It takes much more to get us excited and, in their personal time, critics are more likely to drink beer, cocktails, or just water, than a so-so wine.
It’s the stellar wines which keep us in the business. And, like flaws, they are immediately obvious to nose and palate. Great wines have a verve which instantly raises our eyebrows, improves our posture and grabs our full attention. We literally sit up and take notice.
Try it Yourself
JJ Buckley has many, very highly rated wines in-stock. You can search for top reds, top whites, top sparkling, and top dessert wines. Get a few which are of the same variety and region as your every day drinkers and analyze them side by side. See if you can find what sets them apart.
JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, educator, and authority on California wines and wineries. His writing has appeared in The Tasting Panel and SOMM Journal. Online, he writes for his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine), PlanetGrape, and GuildSomm. He teaches at the San Francisco Wine School. Fred’s certifications include WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator and Level 3 WSET Educator. He's been twice awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.